Grandfather of the mystery genre and horror writer Edgar Allan Poe’s impact lingers throughout literature. His works continue to be adapted for the screen, ranging from the upcoming Fall of the House of Usher series coming to Netflix, to The Simpson’s retelling of “The Raven”.
Probably his most recognizable poem, “The Raven” tells the story of a grieving man haunted by a raven that speaks one word over and over — “nevermore”. The man interprets this message as proof that he’ll never see his loved one, Lenore, again, even in heaven. The poem ends with the man telling the audience that the devilish bird still remains in his study, serving as a reminder that his love will return “nevermore”.
The poem spins a narrative that keeps you on your toes. It’s an effective piece of horror, and Poe manages to build tension and suspense as the poem progresses. Here’s a look at some ways I believe he mounts suspense in his poem.
The Fake Out
It might seem like an obvious statement, but “The Raven” tells a story. You have a main character that develops as the story progresses, there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end, and there’s conflict. Thus, storytelling devices still apply.
In the first four stanzas of the poem, the speaker confronts a “tapping at my chamber door” (5). The speaker, frightened by the sudden disturbance, opens the door only to find “darkness there and nothing more” (24). It’s the poetic equivalent to a fake jumpscare in a movie. Poe sets up this reveal, only for the reader to find nothing on the other side of the door. This sets the imagination running, wondering “what was the knocking”? Obviously, it’s a raven, but the fake-out still works to build tension.
Every stanza in “The Raven” ends with the word “more”, usually in the phrase “nevermore” or “nothing more”. What’s more, the stanzas follow a specific cadence, so regardless of what you read beforehand, you’ll always end with that final “nevermore”. Even within the stanzas, the poem’s speaker will repeat phrases — right from the beginning, the first stanza repeats “rapping, rapping” in quick succession (4). In fact, each stanza repeats at least one word or phrase.
This reflects the character’s anxiety and paranoid state of mind. The speaker is clearly anxious this particular night, and fretting over the nature of his lost Lenore. Repeating phrases demonstrates how skittish the speaker is, and in turn places the reader into a similar state of mind by forcing them to repeat words the same way.
Imagery and Word Choice
The poem features plenty of dark imagery — “midnight dreary,” “bleak December,” “surcease from sorrow” — which immediately sets the tone. Filling your reader’s imagination with desolate images sets them into a sense of unease. With such a sinister beginning, Poe gives himself room to build off of the unsettling setting.
He also uses words not only for their meaning, but their sound. Many of the words utilize a sharp, percussive sound with harsh consonants — lots of explosive “p”, “b”, and “d” sounds. This acts sort of like a metronome, or a ticking clock. When you get phrases like “doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” (26), you get a series of consonants ticking, replicating the sound of a clock in the study.
Poe uses these sounds to build up to a release, like with the line “what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore” (71). The repeated “gh” sound builds in trochaic fashion until you hit “ominous bird of yore”, upon which the pattern breaks. By continually hitting the same hard consonants and replicating a striking sound, Poe creates a sense of tension.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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